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MASTER CHENG gets 6.5/10 A light meal


Directed by Mika Kaurismäki

Starring Pak Hon Chu, Anna-Maija Tuokko

6.5/10

Food is the anchor of this film: its deliciousness, its cultural significance, and its healing capabilities. Amidst some generally casual character building, the wonder of food is explored as this title character brings his chef abilities and philosophies to a small-town community.

Cheng (Pak Hon Chu) and his son Nunjo (Lucas Hsuan) show up in a remote town in Finland. They enter Sirkka’s Diner, politely asking all its patrons if they know of anyone by the name Fongtron. They ask Sirrka herself (Anna-Maija Tuokko) and though neither she nor any of the patrons have a clue, the misplaced Cheng and his son are put up in one of Sirrka’s rooms.

Cheng pays back the kindness by replacing the blandness of the Finnish mashed potatoes and sausages of her diner with his Chinese cuisine expertise, pleasing tourists and locals alike. The reason for his sudden generosity seems elusive, he claims it’s simply because he’s a cook (as he used to work as one back in Shanghai) – but it becomes increasingly evident there’s an ulterior motive for his stay.

There are many questions to Cheng’s appearance in Finland, most of which are literally asked by one of the townspeople, Vilppula (Vesa-Matti Loiri). The answers to these don’t all feel entirely fresh, seeming like they’ve been lifted from all sorts of movies that came before this. In saying that, they manage to put together a hugely respectable portrait of a man trying to pay back his dues.

Master Cheng is so easy-going, that it doesn’t quite get into an original or adventurous spirit, keeping itself confined both geographically and thematically. One scene changes that. The pivotal scene is when Cheng explains to the schoolchildren that are visiting in his kitchen the balance that cooking offers, such as cooking warm foods during winter, teaching them (and us) how to utilise the healing benefits of food.

The film is leisurely with how it paces itself out, not rushing a single thing. Though the most quickly served elements are the dishes themselves, which look like a delight (see this on an empty stomach if you dare). The chemistry between Cheng and Sirrka is what benefits from this gentle pacing the most, teasing it out as they gradually discover where each other have come from before they met.

Master Cheng is a small delight, with an earnest insight into the art of cooking (specifically Chinese style cooking). It’s also a delight to see the rejuvenation Cheng and what his food brings to this small, isolated community, even if the delight of this film doesn’t leave a long-lasting effect on the palette.

DAVID MORGAN-BROWN

In response to advice from the Australian Government due to concerns around COVID-19 (coronavirus) and non-essential mass gatherings, Perth Festival has cancelled the rest of the season of Lotterywest Films at UWA Somerville.

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